Stories

Partners


Never work with a partner. Tris had been practicing that rule for years. It was a good rule. A partner means you need to worry about someone else. A partner means you can't control the whole situation. You can do everything you're supposed to, but if your partner does something unexpected...

Well, you wind up running from an angry gang of montane through barren hills with no where to hide.

Tris kicked his spurs into his komostier, trying to urge it to run faster. The thing was going as fast as it could, scrabbling down the steep slope of the hill quicker than was likely safe for either of them. Off to his right, a dwarf named Teklod was holding on to his own komostier's saddle horn and trying to keep from being flung off.

About ten dozen paces behind them, a gang of six montane were chasing them down on their own mounts. Tris didn't know what they were called; he didn't go into montane territory that often. They were big, hairy creatures with hooves and long, straight legs, and curling horns on their long, narrow heads. The montane were shouting and whooping as they chased Tris and Teklod down the hill.

"They're gettin' closer!" Teklod shouted to him, his voice sounding like the worried cry of some distressed bird. "We gotta get away!"

Tris spared a glance over his shoulder. Sure enough, the montane were closing in on them. Their mounts were faster than the komostiers, at least in this uneven terrain. They'd been giving chase for a good half hour now and their mounts didn't look tired either. Tris knew he and Teklod could push their komostiers for a good while longer too, but who would stumble first?

There was a sudden woosh as a pellet flew past Tris's face, then exploded into a fireball right in his path. His komostier lunged to the side and barely avoided it. A blast of lightning cut through the air and sent up a spray of rocks to his right.

"They're shootin' at us!" Teklod cried out.

Tris gritted his teeth and reached down beneath his robe to grab one of his wands. With one hand clutching the saddle horn tight, he turned and wildly fired back at their pursuers. Bolts of pure energy rocketed out, but their nimble mounts jumped to the side without breaking stride. Tris cursed and jammed the wand back into the holster. The only thing he'd managed was to encourage the montane in their chase; their whooping shouts and challenges just grew louder and louder.

A dozen options went through Tris's mind and he dismissed most of them quickly. He and Teklod couldn't split up; they were outnumbered, so the montane could simply split up too. Doing that might give Tris a better shot at getting away; he wouldn't have to watch out for the dwarf in that case. But Teklod was the one carrying their bounty.

Why had Tris let Teklod carry the bounty? Partners always screwed things up. They screwed up how Tris thought. They forced him into bad decision and poor planning. Never work with a partner, Tris told himself. This is the last time, ever. Never again.

They could try to stand and fight their way out. Tris was a wizard and Teklod claimed to be a crack shot with his rod, while it didn't look like the montane had any wizards in their gang... But that still meant six on two, which were terrible odds. So fighting was out.

There weren't any forests for leagues, so reaching one and using the terrain to break up the pursuit wouldn't work. They might be able to reach a town before being run down, but that would just bring a fight into the middle of a bunch of innocent people.

They had to find a place to hide, but where -

"Tris!" Teklod shouted, breaking his train of thought. "Look! A bridge!" Tris followed the dwarf's pointing and saw a slender, rickety old bridge crossing a defile in the hills.

"That way!" Tris shouted and pulled on the saddle horn, wheeling the komostier toward it. Teklod did the same and soon the two were charging straight at it. Tris just hoped that the bridge would hold their weight. He briefly entertained slowing down to let Teklod cross first to test it out, then decided that if it did fail, falling to his death would be preferable to being caught by the montane.

He charged his komostier across the bridge and felt it sag beneath them. The old timbers groaned under their weight, but held as he crossed to the other side. He slowed down and turned around in the saddle, doing his best to hold on as Teklod crossed. Once the dwarf had gotten all the way across the bridge, Tris carefully aimed with his wand and fired.

One of the bridge timbers exploded into a shower of splinters. The other one, now forced to support the weight of the entire bridge by itself, emitted a loud groan and then snapped in two. As the entire thing collapsed into the defile, Tris grinned and made a rude gesture at the pursuing montane. "Suck on the Disc!" he shouted at them, waving his hand and extended fingers back and forth.

His relief quickly faded as he noticed the montane weren't slowing down. They kept charging full speed at the defile, right until they reached the edge, where their mounts suddenly leapt across the gap and landed on the other side without breaking stride.

Tris spun back around in his saddle and cursed, kicking his komostier in the sides and urging it up to full speed again. "Orb-burnt montane jumped it!" he shouted at Teklod, who had pulled a good ways ahead. "Keep going!"

The whoops and shouts of the montane were even closer now, less than five dozen paces back. Another bolt of lighting speared through the air, sending up a shower of rocks right in front of Tris. They were getting uncomfortably close to hitting him. He didn't know how many shots it would take before his wards dropped, but he knew it wouldn't be enough to run them out of charges.

With another angry curse, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small silver chain. "The earth shudders and quakes. Mountains crumble and valleys fill. Nature destroys but man rebuilds. Unbreachable wall, rise!" With the last word, he tossed the chain over his shoulder.

As soon as it hit the ground, a wall of earth shot up between him and the pursuing montane. Their angry whoopings turned to panicked shouting. There was a satisfying scream of terror as one crashed directly into the wall... and right through it.

It wasn't clear who was more astonished. The montane, who had surely thought they were about to crash headfirst into a rock wall, or Tris, who had assumed the same. Instead, the wall crumbled like dust and left the montane slowed but otherwise unharmed.

"I'm gonna kill Kemrit," Tris growled to himself, mentally adding if I get out of this alive. The hylidan had sold him the chain for nearly five gold pieces, promising him that it would be able to raise an impenetrable wall of stone from the ground.

But his thoughts for revenge were cut short by the more urgent present situation. What other devices did he have that might be able to put off the montane? The medallion wouldn't work, the montane didn't mind bright light in the slightest. There was the rope, but that would only stop one of them... The glass, maybe? No, they were too far from water. The crystal? No, the fire wouldn't be big enough!

Another blast of fire from one of the montane's staves broke his concentration. This one was too close for his komostier to avoid and they went right through the fireball. Tris's wards crackled and sputtered as they fought off the heat. His komostier was not so lucky and roared in pain, but kept running nonetheless.

Tris quickly checked to see if any of his packs had caught fire, but aside from a few char marks, they were unblemished. The next shot would break his wards for sure, he thought. They had to get away and now, but how?

"Tris!" Teklod shouted. "A cave!"

Tris snapped his head around. Sure enough, there was a large opening in the hillside. Tris turned his komostier toward it and urged it on. Teklod had already made the turn and was a good dozen paces ahead of him, nearly into the cave, when another fireball exploded between them. The wards crackled and then died, letting in the last flickering flames to singe Tris's hair and skin.

His komostier stumbled and toppled forward, sending Tris flying out of the saddle and crashing into the ground. The wind was knocked out of him and he lay on the ground in pain. The montane whooped and hollered as they closed in on him.

"Tris, come on!" he heard Teklod shout. Tris forced himself to his feet and scrabbled forward toward the cave entrance for the little good it would do him. However, as soon as he crossed the threshold of the cave, there was a rusty squeal, then a rumbling grind. Seconds later, a heavy stone slab closed down over the entrance to the cave, plunging everything into darkness.

For a few seconds, there was only the angry trilling of Teklod's komostier at the sudden darkness, then came the angry shouts of the montane on the outside. A few blasts of their staves sounded, causing slight tremors to shake the slab Tris was now leaning against. From the way the montane became even angrier, it seemed they wouldn't be able to blast the slab open with what they had available.

"Hah!" Tris shouted, hopefully loud enough that the montane would hear him. "We got away! Go suck on the Disc!"

There was a moment of silence, then the montane began angrily shouting over each other, insulting Tris's mother, father, manhood, desire to fuck goblins (which, Tris had to admit, was accurate), and all manner of other things. Eventually, one of them shouted down the others into silence.

"You canno' s'ay fere forever!" the montane said, his airy, breathless voice nearly muted by the thick rock slab. "You'll come ou', even'ually! Fen we will ea' your hear' and 'ake back wha' is ours!"

Tris pressed his ear up against the slab, straining to listen. There was the faintest hint of movement outside, then it slowly grew quieter. The montane were moving away from the slab, probably to set up camp and avoid allowing Tris to hear their plans. Tris hoped the montane wouldn't be able to hear him talking either, though with their large ears, it was a distinct possibility they could eavesdrop through the slab even a good twenty paces away.

For now, though, he simply slumped back against the slab and let out a deep breath. He took off his hat and wiped his sweating brow. The adrenaline was quickly flowing out of him, now that he was stuck in the darkness. Though now that he thought about it... "Where'd that slab come from?" he asked.

Teklod's bassy voice echoed in from deeper into the cavern. Dwarven voices were made for the underground, Tris realized. He could almost feel the stone quiver with each word. "I found a lever," he said. "This wasn't a mine."

"Nah?" asked Tris, his eyes closed even though it didn't matter in the darkness. He was breathing heavy and was covered in rapidly-cooling sweat. The places where the fireball singed him tingled with light pain, but it was easy enough to ignore.

"This was a dwarven settlement," Teklod said with some amount of awe. "Maybe even a dwarf fortress."

"How can you be sure?" Tris asked.

"The engravin's," Teklod explained. "Lots of them, all on the walls. This was supposed to be a major settlement for whoever it was that came here."

"Supposed to be?"

There was a brief pause. "Supposed to be. Was. I dunno. It's obviously not inhabited now."

Tris rubbed his chin in thought. "I wonder why that is. If there was a lever still working, it couldn't have been abandoned that long ago..."

"Not true!" Teklod answered quickly, almost petulantly. "Dwarven engineerin' is second to none! Those mechanisms could have been sittin' there, untouched, for centuries and still work today. It might be from the Warring Age, or... Even the False Age!"

Tris laughed. "I doubt that. It don't matter much if it is, anyway. We're stuck in here for now with a gang of angry montane sitting right outside waiting for us."

"There has to be another exit," Teklod said, the shrug audible in his voice. "They wouldn't only make one entrance, would they?"

"We gotta find it first," Tris said. "And I don't know about you, but I can't see a damn thing."

"Oh, hold on." After a moment, several sparks filled the air. Soon after, a torch burst into flame, casting a flickering halo of light over the tunnel. Tris cringed from the sudden brightness. Once his eyes adjusted, he found it did not penetrate the darkness deeply, but it was enough for him to see by.

"How long will that last?" Tris wondered.

"A few hours," Teklod said. "It's the only one I've got, I didn't plan on needin' many. Just brought this one for an emergency." He walked up to his komostier, which was laying on the ground and licking the scrapes and burns it had suffered in the flight, and patted it on the head. It gurgled in annoyance at the unwanted touching, but continued tending to its own wounds.

"Well, we'd better hurry up and find the way out," Tris said with a sigh, thinking about his own komostier. The montane had it now, surely. Along with all of his supplies. It had been a good komostier. Tris had almost given him a name.

At least they still had their bounty. "You do still have the bounty, right?" Tris asked.

"Of course!" Teklod answered as if insulted. He walked to the komostier and patted a leather satchel on it. Inside that was the prize the two of them had been hired to retrieve from the montane. Tris didn't see what the big deal about it had been... Or why he couldn't have simply gotten it alone, but their employers were insistent. It was a two man job.

And so he'd been forced to take a partner. Tris shook his head. "Let's go look for another exit."

Teklod nodded and the two of them started walking down the entryway. As they got deeper, Tris spotted the lever that raised and lowered the slab. It was definitely old, but composed of stone and still sturdy looking. Good fortune that Teklod had seen it and known to pull it...

Further still he spotted the engravings on the wall. They stretched from the floor to the ceiling, each depicting some other scene as vividly as the most exquisite painting. If he had more time, Tris might be inclined to stop and admire them, but...

"Masterfully done," Teklod said softly.

Tris shrugged his shoulders. Now was not the time to discuss art, yet... "Why does that one show a dwarf curled into the fetal position and surrounded by roaches?"

Now it was Teklod's turn to shrug. "The ancient dwarves had... strange notions about what constituted art. The engraver probably was afraid of roaches."

Tris smirked. "Or someone he hated was afraid of them."

"Or that," Teklod admitted without enthusiasm. "Either way, if we studied these close enough, we could tell the entire history of this fort. Who married who, which person was the greatest craftsman, when invasions came and who lost their lives in defense... Engravin's were an important part of any fortress, back in the ancient times." Teklod let out a sigh.

That sigh was definitely a prompt for something, but Tris ignored it. There was no time to get into this dwarf's hobbies. They had to find a way out of here, before they ran out of light. He sped up his steps and stepped in front of Teklod, eager to be past this engraved section and into somewhere useful.

But the further he walked, the more engravings he saw. It seemed they would stretch on forever, covering the entire fortress. Could the dwarves had really engraved the entire thing? It seemed a huge waste of time.

Finally, Tris spotted a section where the engravings stopped. Odd, he thought, that it stopped in the middle of the hallway. Teklod was still several steps behind, holding the torch up, so Tris was standing at the very edge. He slowed his steps and came to a stop just before the edge where the engravings stopped.

As Teklod was about to blunder forward, Tris reached out his arm and caught him by the scruff of the neck. It wasn't a moment too soon. Teklod's foot barely missed stepping onto the blank section.

"Tris!" Teklod squeaked, the front of his tunic choking off his windpipe. "What are you - "

"Shut up," Tris said softly, even though he doubted his voice would do anything. He let go of Teklod once he was sure the dwarf wouldn't take another step forward "You're the one who said the engineering could last centuries, right?"

"Right," Teklod muttered, "but I don't see what - "

"The engravings stop," Tris pointed out. He took the torch from Teklod and waved it in front of him, illuminating the sudden cessation of engravings. "Tell me, do they continue on deeper into the cavern?"

Teklod shook his head. "I don't know. With all that light, I can't see deeper in." Tris frowned but took the torch and retreated a good distance back toward the entrance. Once he was sure he was out of Teklod's line of sight, he waited.

A few moments later, Teklod came trotting back into view. "You're right," Teklod said, his face flushed with what Tris imagined had to be embarrassment. "There's one section, no more than twenty spans across, without any engravin's. I can't believe I missed it."

Tris nodded slowly. "A trap, then." And if there was one trap, there might be dozens more. "Who puts a trap in their entry way?"

"A fortress that has to deal with a lot of invaders," Teklod said. He caught Tris's bemused stare. "Guessin'."

"Well, let's check it." Tris said, taking the torch and returning to the unengraved area. He looked closely and couldn't spot where the trap could possibly be. But he didn't want to get too close, lest he set it off. The ceiling was too low for it to drop anything on them, but neither did he see any seams in the walls or floor which might indicate a weapon. Nor did he see anything that might activate it, such as a tripwire.

"Maybe it's disarmed," Teklod suggested. But Tris wasn't so sure. Who would disarm it?

Tris reached into his pocket and pulled out a small marble. "Burdens break backs. Under a heavy load we strain. Carry the weight of the world upon our shoulders. Encumber!" He quickly tossed the marble, which landed on the floor with a heavy thud.

Almost immediately, a pair of serrated discs sprang from the walls, rotating at tremendous speed. Tris and Teklod both watched in awe as the discs scythed through the air. Were either of them to have stepped into the trap, they'd have been sliced to pieces. It was over in a few seconds, with the discs slowly coming to a halt.

Tris let out a low whistle, then slowly reached out to the discs, which were now sitting harmlessly in plain view. The centuries had tarnished them and dulled the edges of their blades, but they still gleamed dangerously in the flickering torch light. He ran his hand over the surface, feeling the cold metal beneath his fingers.

"Look at that!" Teklod whispered in awe. "Simply amazin'!" He reached out and touched the metal arm that held the discs in place. "I can't believe the ancient dwarves were capable of makin' something like this!"

Tris looked more closely at it, following Teklod's hands as they slowly traveled over the various mechanisms. The discs sat atop coiled springs, with another spring at the joint of the arm. There was a latch at the back of the blade, which Tris imagined would hold the discs tightly wound until the trap was triggered.

Teklod slowly pushed the blade back into a rectangular opening in the wall which had not been present before. Once back inside, it clicked into place. "I bet the weight on the floor triggers a pressure plate," Teklod said. Tris reached down and dispelled the weight from the marble, releasing the plate. Almost immediately, a stone slat snapped back into place over the opening.

Teklod had to yank his fingers back to avoid getting them caught. The second of the two discs was not so lucky. The slat clamped down on the bar holding it into place and there was a harsh grinding sound, followed quickly by a popping.

"Tris!" Teklod cried out in horror, not for the near crushing of his fingers, but because of the damage done to the trap. He carefully pushed a foot down onto the pressure plate, causing the first disc to pop out again, though since it had not been wound it did not spin. He checked on the damage disc. "You broke it! This trap has sat unsprung for who knows how long and you done broke it!"

Tris snorted. "Oh, who cares? It's not protecting anything any more."

Teklod glared at him, but Tris pushed past him. "Come on, we can't waste time worrying about that. We need to keep moving. And keep your eyes out for any other traps."

He could tell that Teklod wanted to keep arguing, to say something about Tris's callous disregard for the great achievements of the ancient dwarves... But he thankfully kept it to himself and just huffed after Tris.

They went deeper into the tunnel, eventually coming to a split. One went to the left, down another heavily engraved tunnel, while the other continued straight ahead.

"Well, which way do we go?" Tris asked.

"How should I know?" Teklod snapped.

Tris shrugged his shoulders and turned his back to the dwarf. "You're the dwarf, I figure you'd know something about dwarf fortresses. Which way most likely leads to the other exit."

There were several moments of silence, before Teklod sighed and said, "I really don't know. These are ancient dwarves. They lived in a different time. If it was now, today, I'd say we take the left, because that slopes back up toward the surface. But the ancient dwarves were known for making passages that led to nowhere... Or to perilous pits full of magma or spikes. It could be that we have to go several levels down before we find another passage leading back up to the surface, to an exit leagues away from the main entrance." He laughed and shook his head. "For all I know, this is the back door we came through and the real entry way is on the other side of the hills."

Well, that wasn't what Tris wanted to hear, but there was no other way about it. They'd have to split up and figure out what they were doing. "I'll head left," Tris said. "You head straight ahead." He pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open, noting the time. "We'll meet back up here in two hours, got it? That'll give me an hour left for the torch to see with."

"Alright," Teklod finally said. "You be careful, Tris."

Tris nodded and turned down the hallway. He kept his eyes peeled for any signs of more traps. Before he even reached the end of the hall, which was unengraved, unlike the entrance, he spotted three... And missed one, which nearly got him a spear in the side. Luckily for him, the wooden haft had rotted so thoroughly that when the spear point hit him, the haft snapped in two and just left him with a rip in his tunic.

At the end of the hallway, he found a small room that was covered in debris. There were shattered pieces of flat stone scattered all around. A few pieces seemed less damaged than others and Tris realized they'd once been tables and chairs. These dwarves didn't have much in the way of comfort, he thought.

In the rear of the room, he found a set of stairs, leading down further into the hill. He took them down and found himself in another long hall. This one, however, was lined with openings on each side. As he walked slowly down them, he peeked into each. Each was identical in size, containing old stone cabinets and boxes and sometimes a pile of rotting wood. With trepidation, he poked through a few of the boxes out of sheer curiosity.

Most were empty, but one of the few which had remained sealed was filled with rotting, musty clothes. It seemed likely that these had been the bedrooms of the ancient dwarves. At least one of them had left a pile of clothes behind.

What had run the dwarves out of this place? Had it been whatever invaders had necessitated the creation of all the traps? Or had something else brought it down?

No matter how long he looked, he couldn't find an exit. He discovered another set of stairs which led further down into the earth. This layer had another set of bedrooms. He passed them by and discovered another set of downward stairs. Even further down he found further signs of former habitation. Scattered tools, rusty axe blades, cracked and rotting bins and barrels, broken stone figurines and statues. And, above all else, traps.

Loads and loads of traps. It seemed almost like these dwarves had been laying traps all throughout their own homes. Like they were fighting themselves or, even worse, something that had come up from below.

Aside from the traps and the debris, mostly he discovered further long hallways, many of them etched with elaborate engravings. If he was a historian, he figured the engravings might tell him the tale of this fortress. Would the dwarves had carved their own ending? He would have doubted it...

Tris tried to put the dread thoughts out of his mind and press on. It wasn't worth worrying too much about the bones of a long dead fortress. He had more important things to do, like finding a way out.

Then he found the real bones. There were four skeletons, laying in a room. Tris stooped down to inspect them. They were definitely dwarf bones; at least one appeared to be a child. Two of the larger ones were still wearing the tattered remnants of armor. One had on a rusted, crumbling mail shirt, while the other had a few scraps of leather which hadn't been scavenged by cave creatures yet. Neither appeared to be injured.

The third adult skeleton seemed to be huddled with the child's. What had led to these dwarves' demise? And why were these the only skeletons Tris had encountered? If the fortress had succumbed to violence, then other remains would be present, wouldn't they?

But his time was running short. He'd been walking for over an hour and hadn't found anything to indicate an exit to the fortress. If anything, he was going deeper and deeper in. He would have to head back up to the surface soon if he was going to make his rendezvous with Teklod.

On the way back, he carefully avoided all of the traps he had seen. He wasn't sure if they'd been triggered or not, but he wanted to avoid them in case they hadn't. It was slow going, as heading back up was more taxing than heading down, but he eventually reached the place he'd split off from the dwarf. He checked his pocket watch again. He was a few minutes early.

He sat down and waited. Fifteen minutes passed and he didn't think much of it. Another fifteen passed and his torch was starting to sputter, the pitch mostly burned away and leaving only the wood left. If Teklod didn't get back soon, Tris would have to go after him and...

"Tris," Teklod's voice came. Tris let out a sigh of relief and turned toward the source of the sound. Teklod shambled into the ring of fire a few moments later. His face was pale and his mouth drooped open.

"Did you find an exit?" Tris asked hopefully, even though the dwarf's expression didn't hold much hope. Teklod simply shook his head slowly, side to side. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Neither did I," Tris said. "I didn't find much of anything, really."

"Neither did I," Teklod said softly, weakly. His booming bass, which had echoed down the tunnel before, was now barely audible.

"So what now?" Tris said after a moment of silence. "Those montane are still outside waiting for us and this torch is almost out, so I'll be useless in here soon. I don't see much way out of this, unless you think there's another exit somewhere that you can find. But you'd have to go back down and search by - "

"No!" Teklod yelled so loudly it seemed to startle even him. He blinked heavily and stared at Tris as if he hadn't really noticed him there before. Then he shook his head, almost like he were clearing it. "No, no. I think it won't do much good to look any more." The color seemed to be returning to his face, at least.

"What did you find down there?" Tris probed.

"It ain't important," Teklod said, sounding tired all of the sudden. "But you're right, the montane are still out there and since we've made them wait so long, they're probably pissed..." He looked at Tris with haunted eyes. "What are we gonna do?"

Tris nodded sharply. While he'd been waiting for Teklod to return, he'd been thinking about it. "I have a plan," he said. "But it's gonna take some work and it'll be dangerous. And we might not get out alive, but it's the best shot. We're gonna shoot our way out."

"What?" Teklod asked incredulously. "That's insane! We're outnumbered. We'll never - "

"I know," Tris said. "If we were just gonna charge out there at 'em, I'd agree with you. But we ain't gonna do that. You said it yourself, this place was made to survive an invasion. Well, we're gonna be its last defenders and those montane ain't getting in here, got it?"

Understanding seemed to dawn over the dwarf's face. His expression hardened and he nodded his head firmly. "Alright," Tris said. "Then we best get ready." He made a complicated gesture with his hand and the torch suddenly went out. "I'm gonna need what's left of this when we're ready," he explained. "Until then, I need you to bring me every rod, staff, and wand you got."

Tris heard the retreating footfalls of the dwarf up through the tunnel until they were too distant to pick up. He was gone for a good fifteen minutes, before both his and his komostier's heavy plodding came slowly back down the hall. "Sorry, I figured it best to bring the beast down too," he said by way of apology. "Gonna need him anyway."

"Yeah, that's good thinking," Tris said. The komostier, which wasn't used to being led through a dark cave, grumbled and trilled in annoyance. Tris could hear its scaly tail swishing back and forth through the air, occasionally striking the walls with a harsh rasp.

Teklod unloaded the sticks and set them in a pile next to Tris. "There's six of them. Two rods, one staff, and three wands." Tris frowned. "No good?"

"It ain't the best," Tris said. "I figure I'm gonna take one of them rods for myself, woulda liked you to have more than one. But I guess you'll have to make due with that and the staff. How're you with wands?"

"I'm alright," Teklod said, though he didn't sound convincing. "If I'm point blank, I can hit anything just fine. But I don't aim right if it ain't down the haft of a rod."

"Good enough," Tris said. "Now I need you to go and take put the komostier somewhere safe and care of them traps for me."

Teklod was off to do his job while Tris was left with the sticks. He took the first rod and laid it in his lap. He held his hands a few fingers above it and closed his eyes. This time it was necessary, even considering the darkness.

The energy of the rod was open to him like a book. It was a bolt rod. Good for sharp shooting, but it fired slow. He gripped both ends of it and slowly recharged it, giving it a good twelve shots before it would be out. The next rod was a fire rod. That was more Tris's speed. Good rate of fire, plus it would set whatever it hit ablaze. He grasped the ends and charged it up.

Only five shots. Tris grumbled to himself. Whoever'd made that rod was a pretty sloppy craftsman. He guessed Teklod had gotten it cheap somewhere, because five shots for a fire rod was an embarrassment. Even Tris could make one which held five and he wasn't even a sticksmith! But it didn't matter, Tris still had his own wands...

The staff was a lightning staff. Good, sturdy weapon, especially in tight quarters like this. A fire staff would have been better, but Tris couldn't do much about that now. The staff held four charges. Two of the wands were lightning wands, one was a fire wand. One of the lightnings and the fire held eight shots. The other held twelve. Good, but not great.

Tris's wands, a pair of them made out of blackwood and circled with bands of silver. One had a notch in it where a ruby had once been set, the other was plainer and lacked any gemstones. Both were carved with intricate runes up and down their length. The one missing the ruby shot pure energy. It could fire a whole twenty shots before it needed to be recharged. The other was a bolt wand. Not nearly as strong as a bolt rifle, it could still pack a punch. It held fifteen shots.

By the time he was finished, Teklod had returned. "You good?" Tris asked.

"Yeah, I'm good," Teklod confirmed. Tris relit the torch and, now that he could see, tossed him the bolt rod. Teklod caught it easily in the air, held his right arm out, and laid the rod over it so he could stare down the haft. "Twelve shots, huh? All I need, really."

Tris grinned. "Too bad they'll be shooting back." He handed the staff to Teklod, as well as the wands he'd gotten from the dwarf. "Stay back at the end of the hall. Take the shots as you can. I'll try to lead some down the hall with me. Hopefully they split up. If they don't, well, cover my back, right?"

Teklod simply nodded and then jogged down the hall. Eventually, his voice came floating back from the darkness. "Ready!" he shouted.

Tris took a deep breath and returned toward the entrance. His torch sputtered weakly, its flame diminishing with each passing moment. He knew he wouldn't have long before it went out entirely. He leapt over the pressure plate to avoid the trap and finally came to the lever.

With a grunt, he pulled the lever the other way and hoped it would work. Soon after he heard the grinding of the slab over the entry way. Orblight started to pour in through the crack at the bottom as it slowly lifted. He turned and ran back down the hall, hearing the surprised shouts of the montane.

He leapt back over the trap and then whirled around, barely able to see the entryway from where he stood. He hoped the montane could see his torch from there, else this wouldn't work at all...

A moment later, one of the montane peeked his head around the entry way, the black spot of his head against the backlighting the only sign of him. "You come ou' of fere!"

Tris lifted his energy wand and took careful aim...

The energy slammed into the montane's face with a pop and the man collapsed to the ground. "Come and get me!" Tris yelled back at them.

A howl of righteous fury lifted into the air as soon as the montane got over the shock of their fallen comrade. It was a louder than Tris had expected. Much louder. The first few montane poured into the opening, firing their weapons down the hall. Their shots - fire, lightning, energy, and bolts - all blasted wildly around Tris, not coming anywhere particularly close to hitting him. He aimed his wand and fired off two more shots, dropping two more montane.

Funny thing, though, that should have left only three standing but Tris counted definitely more than three in the backlighting. He couldn't tell how many, exactly, but it was way more than three. And from the way the shots kept pouring in back at him, it was a whole lot more.

"Shit," Tris muttered, raising his wand to fire another shot. This one somehow managed to miss the swarming mass of montane as they pressed into the tunnel. As they got deeper in, their own torches burst into flames, illuminating them perfectly.

A blast of fire slammed into his wards and briefly flashed into life before disappearing harmlessly. Tris counted his blessings it was only from a wand, then turned and ran back down the hall. Shots from rods and wands crashed into the walls and floor just behind him, while a few whizzed by his head, barely missing him. One or two managed to crash into his wards, further weakening them, but they were only glancing.

He finally came to the split in the hallway and shouted out, "They got backup!" before turning down his path and leaving Teklod to his own devices.

A moment later the tunnel echoed with the blood curdling scream of one of the montane. The thought of the serrated disc tearing through the man's flesh and bisecting him wasn't a pleasant one, but it meant one less person trying to kill him, so it brought a smirk to Tris's face.

He leapt over two more pressure plates and a trip wire on his way down the hall. Behind him he could hear the crack of Teklod's rod and the angry howls from the montane. The sharp pop came regularly, every five seconds or so. For a bolt rod, it was firing faster than Tris could imagine. Teklod really was a master with that thing. But it didn't seem to be quieting down the montane at all.

Had they brought an entire damn army? The loud whoosh of a fire staff overpowered all the other noise. Tris held his breath, but then a second later came another pop of Teklod's rod. He'd be out of shots soon enough...

Then Tris felt a blast of heat catch him full in the back. His wards flared up around him, absorbing most of the heat, then they failed completely. The hair on the back of Tris's neck was singed away. A second later, an energy blast caught him in the left shoulder. His whole left arm went numb and he almost stumbled and fell, but managed to maintain his balance.

He ran into the room full of crumbled furniture and leapt behind one of the overturned tables. After tossing the sputtering torch into the corner, he clutched his wounded shoulder and tried to massage some feeling back into his arm, but it was useless. It wasn't even tingling and he couldn't move it at all. It would be useless for an hour, at least. That meant he couldn't use the rod nor rebuild his wards, not that he really had much time...

One of the montane screamed and Tris realized he'd hit the first trap and been impaled on a rusty spike for his trouble. Taking the opportunity, Tris poked out from behind cover and fired down the hallway at the convenient target provided by the rings of light from the montane's torches. He took three shots, but only heard one connect for sure.

The montane were suddenly shouting to each other and he heard them ceasing their blind charge down the hall. Tris muttered in annoyance. He'd hoped a few of them would have continued running down, into the rest of the traps, just to weaken their numbers up a little.

A bolt of lightning flashed over his head, crashing into the far wall and sending up a shower of pebbles. How thick was the table slab he was hiding behind? Could it take a shot from a lightning bolt without blowing to pieces? From a wand, probably. Maybe from a staff, but definitely not from a rod. The only thing saving him right now was the lack of light for the montane to aim at...

How many of them were out there? Two or three? Or a dozen or more? He could handle two or three... A blast of fire flew over his head. He popped up to try and take another shot and barely managed to duck back beneath the table before a series of bolts whizzed right by his face.

Definitely more than three, he thought. They couldn't see him, but they could keep him pinned down behind the damn table.

"Come ou' and give up!" one of the montane shouted. "We won' kill you!"

"Kelad puke," Tris shouted back, "you ain't gonna let us go after we killed so many of you!"

Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, a barrage of shots slammed into the table. Tris had to dive and roll out of the way as it was reduced to a pile of rubble in only a brief few seconds. He cursed himself. The montane were just trying to get him to talk so they could hear him and figure out his exact location thanks to their damn big ears.

He really had no choice now. Running was not an option. The torch was basically out, the only light being cast from it the dim red glow of embers. If he stumbled down into the lower level, the best he could hope for was to get lost and die of thirst. More likely, he'd wind up impaled on one of the traps or trip and break his neck.

The faintest flickers of the montane's torches let him see the entrance to the room. He crept over to it and pressed himself up against the wall. His wounded arm dangled uselessly to his side. There was a whoosh and Tris turned his head away from the entrance just as a fireball came blazing into the room. He gritted his teeth against the pain of the licking flames, even though it didn't hit him directly.

A fire staff was a nasty thing.

Growing desperate, Tris reached into his pocket and pulled out a small briolette cut crystal. He knew this next part would give his position away, but it was his best chance. "The Orb's mighty heat." Immediately there was a blast of lightning slamming into the corner of the entrance, sending up a shower of pebbles. "Great consumer, devour all that burns. All things in the world become ashes! Explode!" With the final word of the incantation spoken, there was an immediate volley from the montane.

But Tris grinned and, once it stopped, he quickly spun out into the entry way and shouted, "Erupt!" and wildly threw the crystal down the hall before leaping into the corner of the room. Moments later, the crystal exploded into a massive ball of fire. The montane shrieked in horror, but it was thankfully cut mercifully short as the fires burnt them to cinders.

Tris waited for a long, tense moment. Were there any more in the corridor just waiting for him? The light from the burning fires was bright enough that it was illuminating the room Tris stood in as surely as if he were out under the Orb. He waited a minute and strained his ears to listen for any sign of life. He heard nothing.

With his good hand, he took off his hat and gingerly poked it around the corner. No one took a shot at it, so he pulled it back and placed it firmly back on his head, where it belonged. Then, clutching his wand tight,he stepped into the opening.

There was no one there. Only a pile of burning corpses in the center of the hall. Without looking down at them, he briskly stepped over them and made his way down the hall, avoiding the traps. The montane who had been impaled on the spike trap lay slumped against the wall, a pool of blood cooling on the floor beneath him.

Tris looked down at him and pointed his wand right at him. The montane's eyes snapped open and he tried to raise the wand clutched in his hand in time, but the energy blast slammed into his chest. He let out a final shuddering breath and then went limp. Tris calmly walked on.

As he stepped out into the main hall, a crack of lightning snapped past Tris's ear. He went to the floor in a sprawl and fired his own wand blindly down the hall, toward his attacker.

Teklod's voice cut through the darkness. "Tris, Tris! It's me!"

Tris stopped firing, his heart pounding in his chest. "Teklod? What in the Disc's light did you shoot at me for?"

Teklod chuckled. "Thought you mighta been one of them! Only had one shot left. Had to take it."

Tris painfully pushed himself up with his one good arm and hobbled down the hallway. He was suddenly sore all over, except in his numb arm. One of the montane's torches was laying on the floor, still aflame. He stooped down to pick it up and walked down toward Teklod.

He passed a pile of montane bodies, at least ten deep, clogging the hallway. It had been a shooting gallery. When he got to Teklod, the dwarf was sitting on top of one of the bodies, casually smoking a cigar. He squinted up at the burning torch and gave Tris a smarmy grin. "What took you so long?"

Tris shrugged his shoulders and looked away, back toward the entrance. "Nothing much. Come on, let's get going before any more of 'em come."




The two men rode onto the manor of their employer three days later. Soon after exiting the abandoned fortress, Tris's komostier had run up from nowhere and nearly tackled him. It had a few scrapes and bruises, but was otherwise no worse for the wear. Tris patted it on the nose and said, "I really should name you one of these days, but not now. Not today."

By the time they arrived, Tris was exhausted. He hadn't slept at all since emerging from the cavern. "It's the damn Orb," Tris muttered, staring up at it as it hung suspended in the air as he tried to get sleep on day. "Damned daylands, always too bright."

Teklod laughed at him. "You spend too much time with those goblins, you're startin' to act like 'em." A few moments after, he was snoring. Tris just shook his head and stared up into the sky, watching the sparse clouds float by, not even bothering to try to get to sleep.

Because of his exhaustion, he let Teklod do all of the talking when they got back to their employer, Mr. Ithur. The man was a well-to-do human with mostly black hair that had white streaks at the temples, a strong broad nose, and skin that looked like weather-beaten leather. "We had quite a bit of trouble gettin' this back," Teklod said, with a smarmy glance at Tris. "Things didn't go quite accordin' to plan."

Ithur allowed himself a thin smile that pulled his skin tight across his jaw. "But of course it did, sir. I do believe, I say, I do believe I'm paying you gentlemen quite well for your services."

Teklod clapped his hands and nodded his head. "Speakin' of which, I do believe it's time to pay up." The way he rubbed his hands together greedily forced an eye roll from Tris, but brought another bemused smirk from Ithur.

"I do believe I should see my bounty first, sir," Ithur said.

Teklod nodded hurriedly again and unslung the sack from his shoulder and gently placed it on Ithur's finely carved desk. Ithur hungrily grasped the sack's flap and pulled it open just enough for him to see into it, without letting either Teklod or Tris take another glimpse at the prize, even though they'd seen it so many times already.

Even with this small view, Ithur stared for a good minute before finally closing the flap and nodding his head appreciatively. "I must admit, I say, I must admit that it looks even better in person than I had been, I say, better than I had been led to believe. This piece will make a fine, I say, fine addition to my collection."

"Good, good," Teklod said, though his smile had finally dropped away. "Now, about our payment."

"Of course, good sirs," Ithur said. He opened a drawer on his desk and pulled out two small pouches. He tossed one to Teklod, who fumbled his to the floor, and one to Tris, who caught it in mid air.

Without even opening the pouch, Tris turned and walked to the door. "Hey, Tris," Teklod called after him. "Ain't you even gonna count the money?"

Tris shook his head and stepped out the front door. "No, sir," he said firmly as he walked away.


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